Johannesburg - And so the fight begins. Over a million motorists face criminal records for failing to pay their e-tolls following an announcement this morning that two prosecutors have been appointed to start taking action against motorists who have failed to pay their bills.
The Justice Project South Africa said people convicted of non-payment would have a criminal record for life, even if the e-tolls were scrapped. But the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance has vowed to help the first person prosecuted, funds permitting.
Last week Gauteng Premier David Makhura appointed a team to review the impact of e-tolls. Outa founder Wayne Duvenage said his organisation had approached the South African National Roads Agency asking them to withhold prosecutions until the findings of the panel were released at the end of November, but they declined to do so.
JPSA Chairman Howard Dembovsky said the news of the appointment of prosecutors came as no surprise.
“Our laws apply to the ‘here and now’, and not retrospectively. Therefore, should people be prosecuted and convicted whilst the panel of review does its job and a conclusion reached that e-tolling should be scrapped and replaced with another, those convictions would stand.
“The Sanral strategy of prosecuting e-toll defaulters/detractors in criminal courts relies heavily on convictions being attained by the National Prosecuting Authority and, since South Africa does still have a constitution and functional courts, convictions are not a foregone conclusion.
“As things stand, there are more than a million people who are going to have to be prosecuted and two prosecutors, operating in the already overburdened criminal justice court system, don’t stand any chance of making a significant dent in this figure,” he said.
Sanral’s e-tolls marketing strategy had always involved fear-mongering by threatening people with criminal records and other life-changing consequences for resisting e-tolling and could not hope to get compliance without it, he said.
Dembovsky said what was intriguing, however, was why the NPA would risk prosecuting people when an inquiry was ongoing.
“Obviously, the prospect of being turned into artificial criminals by Sanral and the NPA will have a skewing effect on any deliberations and assessments by Makhura’s panel of review since people may indeed be concerned by this latest scare tactic and rush off to pay their outstanding e-tolls in order to avoid prosecution.
“However, what doesn’t seem to have been considered is that there is a significantly large contingent of people who are not joking about refusing to pay e-tolls and are prepared to face the consequences and/or simply cannot afford the outrageous sums of money Sanral demands from them,” he said.
Dembovsky said he believed a properly mounted criminal defence would lead to the acquittal of those accused of this so-called crime.
“We therefore urge anybody summoned by the NPA to approach Outa the second that they receive summons,” he said.
Spokesman for the NPA Nathi Mncube said their job was simply to prosecute in terms of the Sanral act, which made it a criminal offence not to pay e-tolls.
“The NPA will not be collecting on the debt. Sanral would have to institute its own civil proceedings to do so. It’s nothing new, we have been prosecuting people who don’t pay tolls for years,” he said.